Aesthetics of Film

[ Film, Media, and Popular Culture ]

Aesthetics of Film

By Jacques Aumont, Alain Bergala, Michel Marie, and Marc Vernet

An essential introduction to all major areas of film study, including semiotics, narratology, psychoanalysis as a part of film theory, and the theory of spectatorship.

Thomas Schatz, Editor



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6 x 9 | 288 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-70437-4

A concise, lively, and readable summary of classical and contemporary film theory, Aesthetics of Film is the work of experts who are defining the parameters of film criticism internationally. First published in French (L'Esthetique du film) in 1983, the book provides an essential introduction to all major areas of film study, including semiotics, narratology, psychoanalysis as a part of film theory, and the theory of spectatorship.

Because current film criticism is part of a historical debate about the role of cinema in society, the authors probe the contributions of significant film theorists of the past. They consider the earliest writings of Munsterberg, Balazs, and Eisenstein, move on to Bazin, the Filmologists, and Mitry, and address the linguistic, semiotic, and psychoanalytic contributions offered by Barthes, Metz, and many of their contemporaries.

The chapters include "Film as Audiovisual Representation," "Montage," "Cinema and Narration," "Cinema and Language," and "Film and its Spectator." With numerous references to specific films and many black-and-white stills, the book will be useful for both beginning film students and advanced scholars who need a summary of the major stages in the development of film theory and aesthetics.

  • Translator's Note
  • Introduction
    • Typologies of Written Work on the Cinema
      • The Popular Press
      • Publications Directed at Cinephiles
      • Theoretical and Aesthetic Writings
    • Theories of the Cinema and Aesthetics of the Cinema
      • An Indigenous Theory
      • A Descriptive Theory
      • Film Theory and Aesthetics
      • Theory of the Cinema and Technical Practice
      • Film Theories
  • 1. Film as Audiovisual Representation
    • Film Space
    • Techniques of Depth
      • Perspective
      • Depth of Field
    • The Concept of the Shot
    • The Cinema as Audio Representation
      • The Economic-Technical Factors and Their History
      • Aesthetic and Ideological Factors
  • 2. Montage
    • The Principle of Editing
      • The Objects of Editing
      • Modes of Action in Editing
      • Montage: The Large Definition of Editing
    • The Functions of Montage
      • The Empirical Approach
      • Toward More Systematic Description
    • Ideologies of Montage
      • André Bazin and the Cinema of Transparency
      • S. M. Eisenstein and the Dialectical Cinema
  • 3. Cinema and Narration
    • Narrative Cinema
      • The Cinema Encounters Narration
      • Non-narrative Cinema: A Difficult Boundary
      • Narrative Cinema: Objects and Objectives of Film Study
    • The Fiction Film
      • Every Film Is a Fiction Film
      • The Problem of the Referent
      • Narrative, Narration, and Diegesis
      • Narrative Codes, Functions, and Characters
    • Realism in the Cinema
      • Realism and the Materials of Expression
      • The Realism of Film Subject Matter
      • The Plausible
      • The Genre Effect
    • The Impression of Reality
  • 4. Cinema and Language
    • Film Language
      • An Ancient Notion
      • The First Theorists
      • The Film Grammars
      • The Classical Conception of Language
      • A Language without Signs
    • The Cinema: Language or Language System?
      • Film Language and Language System(s)
      • Film's Intelligibility
    • The Heterogeneity of Film Language
      • The Materials of Expression
      • The Concept of Code in Semiology
      • The Codes Specific to the Cinema
      • Nonspecific Codes
    • The Textual Analysis of Film
      • The Concept of Film Text in Language and Cinema
      • Case Study: The Textual System of D. W Griffith's Intolerance
      • The Notion of Text in Literary Semiotics
      • The Originality and Consequence of Textual Analysis
  • 5. Film and Its Spectator
    • The Film Spectator
      • The Conditions of the Representative Illusion
      • The "Working" of the Spectator
      • Filmology's Spectator
      • The Film Spectator as Imaginary Person
      • A New Approach to the Film Spectator
    • The Film Spectator and Identification in Film
      • The Role of Identification in the Formation of the Ego
      • Identification as Narcissistic Regression
    • Double Identification in the Cinema
      • Primary Identification in the Cinema
      • Secondary Identification in the Cinema
      • Identification and Structure
      • Identification and Enunciation
      • The Film Spectator and the Psychoanalytic Subject
      • Feminist Theory and the Spectator
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Typologies of Written Work on the Cinema

There are hundreds of books published each year on the cinema in French and English, while our countries also produce scores of monthly and quarterly magazines and journals covering a wide variety of interests in film (from film theory and criticism to technical reviews to information on the lives of the stars). The serious collector does not know where to stack all these books and journals, while the beginner does not know how to choose among them.

In order to situate the parameters of our text with some degree of precision, we will begin with a brief typological sketch of the range of discourses on the cinema. They may be divided globally into three groups, whose size will prove unequal: first, there are the popular magazines and books; second, the writings for cinephiles or serious film buffs; and finally, the theoretical and aesthetic works. These categories are certainly far from watertight since a book for film buffs may reach a very large audience and still possess some undeniable theoretical value. This sort of text is rare and typically involves film history; the books of Georges Sadoul serve as a good example in France.

Quite logically, publications on the cinema correspond to these categories of the film audience. French publishing is characterized by the volume directed toward the second sector destined for the cinephile.

The term "cinephile" was coined by Ricciotto Canudo in the early 1920s to designate an aware amateur of the cinema. There have been several generations of cinephiles, each with their own magazines and favorite authors. This body of cinephiles expanded rapidly after 1945, particularly in France. They exercised their influence in the form of specialized journals, the boom in film clubs and art houses, film retrospectives in museums, and of course the rise of screenings at film archives. The true cinephile constituted a veritable social type, particularly in places like Paris, London, New York, and Los Angeles where the options for filmgoers were especially rich. Moreover, in Paris they became one distinctive part of the cultural life and could (and still can) easily be recognized by several mimetic traits of "retold films," which were put out of business when the television series came along. Today in France the more scholarly Avant-Scène Cinéma has replaced these popular films racontés.

In any given year there may be thirty books published as monographs devoted to actors, most typically Marilyn Monroe or John Wayne. Actors' memoirs also proliferate, as well as the recollections of certain famous filmmakers. Furthermore, among the big sellers are books on prize-winning films and other gift or coffee table books such as luxurious editions devoted to the major studios (The MGM Story, The Films of 20th Century Fox: A Pictorial History, The Universal Story, etc.) or to popular genres (film noir, musicals, westerns). In general these coffee table books grant a large place to iconography since the written text often simply complements the beautiful photos.

If we bear in mind that a critical or theoretical approach must employ a certain aesthetic distancing of the object of study, it becomes clear that the discourse employed in this sector of film writing is not theoretical. Rather, this is the realm in which deliberately blind enthusiasm, total and mystified devotion, and the discourse of adoration all triumph. To the extent that film's cultural status continues to rest on a certain illegitimacy, this popular discourse will always find occasion to flourish. We must consider it, however, since in terms of size popular discourse constitutes the bulk of books and magazines devoted to the cinema and thereby provokes an effect of normality. Since the object of study is seen to be frivolous, it becomes normal that the discourse upon it depends on such babble.

Publications Directed at Cinephiles

Within the category of the cinephile, it is no longer the actor who triumphs, but the filmmaker. It is here we can see the fruit of efforts by directors of film clubs and archives as well as specialized critics: in order to prove that the cinema was more than a simple medium of entertainment they had to provide and herald auteurs or creators of its works. Numerous monographs bear witness to the successful promotion of the auteur-director: in France, Seghers published eighty such titles, covering directors from Georges Méliès to Marcel Pagnol; many other similar series exist in both English and French.

The second approach of literature for cinephiles is the collection of interviews with one or more directors. The canonical example of a critic leading a lengthy interrogation is certainly Franqois Truffaut's Hitchcock, but many others exist. Within this same category we may add the genre studies that are more in depth than the photo collections of the more popular press, as well as studies of national cinemas and many film histories. Examples include books such as John Halliday's Sirk on Sirk, Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward's Film Noir, and Victor Navasky's Naming Names.

It is easy to notice that such film criticism applies approaches traditional to literature, with its study of great auteurs and genres in relation to the history of important works. However, analysis of films requires tools different from those for literary works, and studying films as résumés of their scripts proceeds via a simplification as dangerous as it is difficult to avoid once one confronts large groups of films. It is important to add that the cinephile's discourse is most prevalent in monthly magazines that dominate this editorial terrain while, by contrast, books only occupy a small addendum.

Theoretical and Aesthetic Writings

This third sector is obviously the narrowest. Nonetheless, it is hardly new and has known certain moments of remarkable expansion owing to the hazards of research on the cinema. We will limit ourselves to two fairly recent French periods for examples. First, there was the creation of the Institute of Filmology at the Sorbonne after the liberation. From the institute sprang an influential journal, Revue Internationale de Filmologie, and the publication of a number of important essays, particularly L'Univers filmique by Etienne Souriau and Essai sur les principes d'une philosophie du cinema by Gilbert Cohen-Séat. Second, from 1965 to 1970, the semiology of the cinema made its breakthrough at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes (School of Advanced Studies), while the structural analysis of film at the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research) combined to generate publication of works by Christian Metz, Raymond Bellour, and the entire movement that surrounded them.

This sector was often more developed in places other than France and the United States. The classics of film theory are Soviet (Poetika Kino, and the writings of Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein in the 1920s), Hungarian (The Spirit of Film by Béla Balázs, 1930), and German (with books by Rudolf Arnheim and Siegfried Kracauer). Moreover, the most important history of film theory is by the Italian Guido Aristarco.

If this theoretical sector has seen a marked revival in the last twenty years, it has been simultaneously paralleled by a steep decline in the sorts of studies that dominated academic writings in the 1950s and 1960s: the textbooks that introduced students to film aesthetics and film language or syntax. Obviously, these two phenomena are related. Essentially, these introductory manuals postulated the existence of a film language (we will return to this concept in chapter 4), while they presented a small dictionary of professional filmmaking, teaching shot scales, framing, and editing strategies. However, the actual study of such cinematic figures was typically limited to a tentative definition followed by the recital of numerous examples culled from regular film viewings.

The development of specialized research throughout the last two decades certainly hindered the publication of these other manuals, since the former began discussing film's theoretical bases. It was no longer possible to pose the problem of film language or syntax while bypassing semio-linguistically inspired analysis. Nor was it now permissible to investigate identification in the cinema without making a necessary detour into the realm of psychoanalytic theory or to study the film narrative while ignoring all the narratological work devoted to literary texts.

Attempting a didactic accounting of these different approaches to film is not a simple enterprise, yet that is the goal of this project. Before launching into the midst of the subject, however, we must first tackle several theoretical and methodological preliminaries.

Theories of the Cinema and Aesthetics of the Cinema

Film theory is often assimilated with the aesthetic approach. However, these terms do not denote the same domains, and it is useful to distinguish them. Since its origins, film theory is equally the object of a polemic concerning the pertinence of approaches that are nonspecific to the cinema and that arise from disciplines exterior to its field. For example, linguistics, psychoanalysis, political economy, ideological theories, iconology, and gender studies are all disciplines that have been the locus of significant theoretical debates during recent years.

The cinema's cultural illegitimacy provokes an increase in chauvinism at the heart of theoretical attitudes that postulates that film theory can only be derived from film itself; exterior theories can only illuminate secondary and thus nonessential aspects of the cinema. This particular valorization of a cinematic specificity continues to weigh down theoretical processes; specifically, it helps prolong the isolation of film studies and thereby hinders the discipline's progress.

By postulating that a theory of the cinema can only be intrinsic, one impedes the possibility of developing hypotheses whose productivity is to be tested by analysis. Furthermore, such a position ignores a point we will demonstrate in this book: film is the meeting place of the cinema and many other elements that are not specifically cinematic.

An Indigenous Theory

There exists an internal tradition of film theory that is sometimes labeled "indigenous" theory. It results from the accumulative theorization of the most pertinent observations of film criticism when practiced with a certain finesse: the best example of this specific mode of theory is still André Bazin's What Is Cinema?

Conversely, Jean Mitry's Esthétique et psychologie du cinéma, an undeniable classic of French film theory, proves via the multiplicity and diversity of its theoretical references, which are exterior to the limited field of the cinema, that such an aesthetics cannot be constituted without contributions from logic, the psychology of perception, theory of the arts, etc.

A Descriptive Theory

Theory is a process that recovers the elaboration of concepts capable of analyzing an object. The term, however, has normative resonances that should be dispelled. A theory of the cinema, in the sense it is given here, does not concern a set of rules one must follow when directing a film. Theory here is instead descriptive; it strives to account for observable phenomena in films and also, by creating formal models, to envision figures not yet realized in actual works.

Film Theory and Aesthetics

To the extent that the cinema is susceptible to diverse approaches, there cannot be one theory of the cinema, but rather there must be theories of the cinema corresponding to these various approaches. One of these approaches involves aesthetics. Aesthetics covers reflection upon the phenomena of signification considered as artistic phenomena. The aesthetics of cinema is therefore the study of the cinema as an art and the study of films as artistic messages. It implies a conception of "beauty" and thus of the taste and pleasure of the spectator as well as the theoretician. Film aesthetics thereby depends upon general aesthetics, a philosophical discipline concerned with all arts.

Aesthetics of the cinema presents two facets: first, there is the general aspect that contemplates the aesthetic effects proper to the cinema; second, there is the specific aspect, centered on the analysis of particular works. This is film analysis, or criticism in the normal sense of the term, as it is used in the plastic arts and musicology.

Theory of the Cinema and Technical Practice

As we mentioned, introductory textbooks on film syntax often borrowed a great number of terms from the lexicon of film technicians. The characteristic of a theoretical approach is to study systematically these notions defined within the field of technical practice. The corporation of directors and technicians has led them to forge, each time it seems necessary, a certain number of words that serve to describe their practice. Most of these terms lack a rigorous base and their meaning can vary considerably according to the era, the country, and the modes of production practice particular to a certain group of filmmakers. These terms have then been displaced from the production stage to that of the films' reception by journalists and critics without the consequences of such transfers being analyzed. As a result, some technical categories mask the reality of the function of the processes of signification. This is the case, for instance, with the labels "sound on"/"sound off," as we will see in chapter 1.

By systematically interrogating these terms, film theory strives to grant them status as analytical concepts. The goal of our book is to summarize from a synthetic and didactic perspective the diverse theoretical attempts at examining these empirical notions, including ideas like frame vs. shot, terms from production crews' vocabularies, the notion of identification produced by critical vocabulary, etc.

Film Theories

One cannot proceed to a definition of a theory of the cinema beginning with the object itself. More precisely, the distinctive feature of a theoretical approach is to constitute its object and elaborate a set of concepts that do not mask the empirical existence of phenomena but rather struggle to clarify them. The term "cinema," in its traditional sense, masks a distinct series of phenomena, each of which arises from a specific theoretical approach. It refers to an institution, in the legal-ideological sense, an industry, a signifying and aesthetic production, and a group of consumer practices, to cite several key aspects.

These diverse acceptances of the term thus come from particular theoretical approaches, which maintain relations of unequal proximity in regard to what one might take as the specific core of cinema phenomena. This specificity always remains illusory and is built on promotional and elitist attitudes. Film as an economic unit within the entertainment industry is no less specific than film considered as an artwork; what varies between the diverse functions of the object is the degree of cinematic specificity. (We confront the distinction specific/nonspecific in chapter 4.)

Many of these approaches come out of disciplines largely constituted outside of indigenous film theory. Thus, the film industry, the mode of production financing, and the mode of film distribution arise from economic theory that obviously exists outside the cinematic. It is probable that film theory in the narrowest sense of the term only contributed a minuscule portion of specific concepts, with general economic theory furnishing the essential concepts, or at least the large conceptual base categories.

All this holds true for the sociology of the cinema: such an approach must evidently take into account a series of attainments by sociology in relation to kindred cultural objects such as photography and art markets. Pierre Sorlin's The Sociology of the Cinema demonstrates the fruitfulness of such a strategy by integrating the work of Pierre Bourdieu into its project.

Our first two chapters, "Film as Audiovisual Representation" and "Montage," reconsider, in light of recent revolutionary work in film theory, material traditionally analyzed by introductory texts on film aesthetics. Their topics include narrative space in the cinema, depth of field, the shot, the role of sound, and the aesthetic, technical, and ideological aspects of editing.

Chapter 3, "Cinema and Narration," surveys film's narrative aspects. It begins with the accomplishments of literary narratology (notably Gérard Genette and Claude Brémond), defines the narrative cinema, and analyzes its components in terms of the status of fiction in the cinema and its relation to narration and history. It also presents several key concepts from new perspectives, namely, the notion of character, the problems of "realism," plausibility, and verisimilitude, and the impression of reality in the cinema.

The fourth chapter, "Cinema and Language," is devoted to a historic examination of the idea of film language since its origins and across diverse usages. It provides a clear synthesis of the way film theory now envisions the concept since the work of Christian Metz. The notion of language is also confronted in relation to the textual analysis of film, described in both its theoretical and aporial dimension.

"Film and Its Spectator," the fifth chapter, begins by examining classical film theory's conceptions of the film spectator according to the psychological mechanisms of comprehension and imaginary projection. Next, it confronts the complex question of identification and the cinema; finally, the chapter clarifies film's mechanisms by summarizing psychoanalytic theory's notions of identification. This didactic synthesis of Freudian theories became indispensable in light of the intrinsic difficulties in defining the mechanisms of primary and secondary identification in the cinema. The necessary side trip into psychoanalytic theory also sets the stage for our concluding discussion of gender and film spectatorship.

French film theorists Jacques Aumont, Michel Marie, and Marc Vernet are faculty members atthe University of Paris III. Jacques Aumontand Alain Bergala are former editors of Cahiers du Cinéma. Richard Neupert is associate professor in the Department of Drama and Theatre at the University of Georgia.

"The single most comprehensive survey of the subject yet written. This masterful book provides a critical and concise introduction to nearly 100 years of philosophic inquiry into the cinema. . . . Aesthetics of Film is likely to become an essential text for the classroom and will provid e an excellent backbone to the collegiate syllabus."

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